Collective Control and Liability

by | Jan 18, 2020 | ICT4D |

This is part three of the story, here are links to part one and part two

Anna lived beside Sally when Sally was in high school. She was a scientist and had developed a special bond with Sally during those high school years. An adult, who was not Mom or Dad, with whom Sally could talk to. The bond had continued on all these years later even though now they lived in different places in the world. No matter where they were, they still talked once a month.

“It is so good to her your voice,” Sally said when Anna picked up the phone. And after exchanging pleasantries and the regular updates on life, Sally proceeded to explain to Anna what she’d been wrestling with.

Anna listened, asking a few gentle clarifying questions while Sally spoke. Then there was a pause after Sally finished. Then Anna began, “let me say back to you what I understand to see if I have it correct.”

“Ok, sounds good” said Sally, looking forward to hearing Anna’s insight. She was always impressed with how Anna’s mind worked and how often Anna could see things Sally couldn’t even though Anna never worked in this field.

“Your organisation and other around you, seek to serve the same people with similar activities, and you want to figure out both how to share data and incentives to do so. How am I doing so far?”

“Spot on as usual” Sally said with a smile.

“Ok good. It then seems to me that you likely have a spectrum of options. There is of course the ‘do nothing’ approach in which all of your organisations simple keep operating in silos, building bigger moats around yourselves to provide a false sense of security.

“Option two is what it sounds like you do already a bit. One organisation receives the contract and then sub-contracts work out to others, but the organisation with the main contract dictates what data to collect, system to use, etc. Each sub-contractee would have their own data stack but it would be consolidated by the first organisation. “

“Exactly,” said Sally, “we call that a consortium with a prime and sub-grantees.”

“Good.” continued Anna. “And these sub-grantees then can operate still quite siloed as they are not dependent on each other’s work to do their work. Is that correct?”

“Spot on Anna”

“Ok excellent. It also sounds like there is starting to be the introduction of a slight variation of this prime model, but it is causing some unease in your industry. Let’s call it the ‘one ring’ model as it sounds nicer than the monopoly model it is. This is where one organisation or supplier provides the data layer and system for everyone. Everyone is forced to use one system but whomever owns or controls the system, owns and controls all of the data. This is a bit like Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc. This model makes it easy to set standards, rules of behaviour and engagement, and so on. But it is also a bit of a dictatorship and if the people who own the platform don’t like you, you are quickly and easily isolated.

“So there are three models I’ve heard you say so far. 1. Individual siloed organisations – individual centralisation. 2. A slight variation of 1 with the siloed organisations being consolidated by a prime – coordinated centralisation. 3. The one ring monopoly – controlled centralised.

“There are other options though that I haven’t heard you mention.”

“Such as” Sally was leaning in to her laptop now.

“Well such as the other end of the spectrum. De-centralised. This would be that each of the people you seek to serve, I think you call them beneficiaries, would control their data.”

“How would that work?”

“Well at a simple level, each beneficiary would have a digital wallet created for them. Into the wallet pieces of information would be put like their biographical data, health data, and so on. Each time they’d interact with your or another organisation they could choose which data to share with you and then when a service was provided to them, your organisation would write a ‘note’ of sorts (it’s called a credential) saying what was provided and that would go back into their wallet. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist. In essence the beneficiary would become the point of interpretability and data sharing rather than one organisation.”

“That sounds complicated and high tech.”

“It is a bit and maybe a stretch too far for your situation. But I’m surprised your industry is not looking into this more as it’s all possible now and the rest of the world is moving in this direction. However, perhaps that’s something to discuss on another call as there is another option that you might want to consider.”

“Oh? Do say more.”

Anna smiled. She had loved the inquisitive and curious mind of Sally from the first day she met her. Sally was curious about everything and always driving for practical solutions. She loved these monthly conversations more than Sally could ever know.

“Well kind of inbetween the monopoly model and decentralisation, there is the collective model. Airlines use this a variation of this model to share passenger check in details. And it’s popping up more and more now. Some folk refer to it as the data trust model others call it a data commons; it’s in use in countries throughout the world.”

“A data trust? What is that?”

“It’s a legal construct that’s been around since 1070. It’s often used with property and to protect assets for a future generation. However, it is being used now with data. In your situation, it would involve a group of organisations coming together with the communities themselves. Jointly, you’d set up a trust with trustees from various organisations and the communities themselves. The trustees would have the legal responsibility to make sure the assets of the trust, in this case the data of the community members, is used only in the way pre-agreed and written down when the trust was created. You might also want to give the community members who are trustees greater voting power than the NGOs to help with some power dynamics.

“The trust would hold the data about the community. It would be a collective so no one organisation controlled the data. It views data as a collective good rather than an individual one or a good of an individual organisation. But it also introduces collective liability or shared liability rather than individual organisations (centralised models) or individuals themselves (decentralised model) having all the liability.”

“Oh wow. My head is spinning. There is someone in what you are saying that seems to be in line with community development principles our development colleagues talk about.” Sally’s mind is in overdrive trying to unpack what she is hearing.

“Well perhaps, I’m not familiar with these development principles, but you are likely correct. It just occurred to me that this data trust idea might help you with these cash programmes that you were talking about as they seem to be forcing you to organise yourselves differently than that ‘prime’ model as it’s more of functional model. Each organisation does a function and then hands off to the next organisation – almost like an assembly line.”

“Oh yes, indeed. Cash programming is changing everything. And oh wow, yes, this model could work very well as it would stop the fighting over which system to use or who owns the data.”

“Indeed. A data trust would not care about systems, it sets the standards and everyone could use their own system to interact with it.”

“Seriously???? It just gets better and better.”

“Yes, seriously. However, I can’t go into it now as I need to go to my doctor’s appointment.”

“Oh right” Sally could not contain her disappointment. “I’m sorry, I forget. I do hope it goes ok.”

“Me too. And I’m sorry I can’t keep talking. Shall I send you a few links to read up on data trusts?”

“Oh yes please, that’d be amazing. And thanks Anna, you are amazing. Do update me on what the doctor says. I’ll be thinking of you.”

“Thanks Sally. I’ll send some links over.”

They hung up. Sally’s mind was still in overdrive. Her notepad was full of scribbles and doodles. “I need a walk to process this” she said grabbing her bag and heading outside. She had a spring in her step that hadn’t been there before the call.

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari

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